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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2007


With the arrival of DVD and its accompanying technology, a whole new underground filmmaking scene was created. Supported by conventions and Internetworking, fans looking for something outside the standard studio dreck discovered real talent and a creative tenacity long missing from cinema’s mainstream. Noted among these up and coming entities were companies like Tempe Entertainment (run by longtime direct to video pioneer J.R. Bookwalter), Splatter Rampage (one time home of the amazing Campbell Brothers), Low Budget Pictures (run by the endearing psycho savant, Chris Seaver), and Eric Stanze’s Wicked Pixel. Unlike the other production companies mentioned, this St. Louis based organization takes the making of terror very seriously. Over the course of nearly a decade, Stanze and his various artistic-minded associates have tried to legitimize low budget fare – and for the most part, they have done a bang up job.


Looking at the six titles released by the company since 1998 (and leaving out projects produced by Stanze including The Undertow, Insaniac, and Buzz Saw, among many others), we can see a collective growing in confidence and pursing sometimes impossible goals. While constantly stymied by less than sufficient budgets, time constraints, and the typical pitfalls that come with trying to produce big screen spectacle on a slivered shoestring, Wicked Pixel remains a standard bearer in homemade horror. They consistently deliver imaginatively viable experiences while never shying away from controversy, absurdity, and ambition. Their films are bloody and sexual, erotic and overreaching. They take the typical macabre makings – demons, serial killers, ghosts – and craft experiences so visceral they violate your personal space while remembering to remain firmly within film’s logistical language.


Specifically, here are the movies that have made the company an indie icon, beginning with Stanze’s first:


Savage Harvest [rating: 7]
When a family member asks for help cleaning up around his property, Karen calls together a few friends. They head out for a weekend of camping and foraging. When they arrive, they notice something bizarre - Aunt Linda is nowhere to be found. As they set up their tents, Uncle George suddenly shows up, telling a weird story about ancient Native American rituals, demonic forces, and possessed stones. He warns them not to touch these tainted rocks, as they contain the souls of demons determined to possess the living. Within hours, some of the party members have vanished. While looking for their lost pals, the gang comes across a disgusting monster with mayhem on its mind. It turns out that the ancient myth has become a reality, and as the stones slowly take over various victims, it is up to the survivors to figure out how to stop this menace.


Though it’s hampered by shortened running time and an ineffective plot stumble at the start of the second act, Savage Harvest is one of Stanze’s best. It is a gory, gruesome mix of the Evil Dead, ancient burial rites, and stellar directorial flare. Visually arresting, never erroneous or inappropriate, and always pushing the plot forward, you can’t help but feel you are in the capable hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. Scares are never telegraphed, suspense is built without reliance on formula or fraud, and while his actors are amateurs at best, there is a real attempt at creating characters that we care about. Stanze doesn’t settle for one-dimensional placeholders - he makes sure his victims are viable personalities. This means his movies have presence and a palpable sense of dread. When combined with the technical elements, this makes for a fine fright film.


Ice from the Sun [rating: 8]
The Presence - the intangible spirit of a sorcerer’s apprentice - regularly rounds up mortals from the world of reality and transports them into his deadly parallel domain. There, he plays on his victims’ most ferocious fears, using their wounded psyche for his own ubiquitous amusement. After centuries of this, the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell get together and recruit a recent suicide victim, a young woman named Alison, to help them out. Via an ethereal messenger, they make her an unusual offer. If Alison can enter the ice-shrouded domain of the Presence, and defeat him, she will be given a second chance at life. She agrees, and as another group makes their way into the wicked underworld, Alison begins her mission. But it will take a lot more than desire to defeat an evil as powerful as the Presence.


Profound, pompous, and occasionally preposterous, Eric Stanze’s Ice from the Sun is a stunning work of near-auteur level genius. Like a Nine Inch Nails video channeled through the lens of David Lynch, or a music montage as envisioned by the Devil, this delightful, disturbing film is far from perfect. Yet for what this director accomplished on a shoestring budget, a ton of 8mm film, and a few enigmatic locations, Stanze should be given considerable praise. Homemade movies are never this inventive, challenging, or brave. What’s great here - and “great” is the word that needs to be used - is Stanze’s inherent cinematic skill. He understands the camera better than any of the other no-budget independent filmmakers in the game. He is not indulgent or obsessed with referencing scenes or sequences from the past. Instead, Stanze sets out to create his own innovative, original visions, and he succeeds royally.


Scrapbook [rating: 6]
Leonard has been killing people for over a decade. He kidnaps his victims, drags them to his deserted farmhouse, and tortures them before ending their life. He also asks them to do one last thing before they die. They must write in a section of his photo album, a tainted volume containing every individual he’s butchered (and their sad, sickening story). Leonard claims that his latest catch, a plain girl named Clara, will be his last. After she writes her tale in his journal, Leonard’s journey will be “over”. Thus it’s a harsh, monstrous battle of wits - and wills - between this innocent girl and a truly twisted madman. Who will win, and what will become of the scrapbook of these deeds, rests completely in the resolve of a deranged psychopath, and the damaged victim under his vile control.


Scrapbook is unrelenting. At the heart of this brutal character study are two very brave, quite excellent actors. Tommy Biondo’s killer is not the most frightening villain ever conceived. Instead, his is more of a bewildering presence, unpredictable and always keeping us wondering…and worried. Indeed, the true suspense of Scrapbook comes from imagining the perverted possibilities Leonard has up his blood-splattered sleeves. The far more effective acting comes at the exploited expense of actress Emily Haack. Naked to partially-clothed throughout most of the movie, this solid, sturdy female is forced into situations so horrid, so completely devoid of humanity that they almost become meaningless. The first 45 minutes of this movie is really nothing more than Leonard beating, raping, defiling, abusing and confusing Clara. And this is where the movie stumbles. By making everything so confrontational and craven, the film forces us to disconnect from the characters, leaving the action rather hollow. 


The Severed Head Network [rating: 6]
The eight efforts offered here - covering several years of output from both Wicked Pixel as a company, and as a group of talented artists - all use the term ‘macabre’ rather loosely. Sure, there is bloodshed, and lots of carefully controlled nightmare fodder. But there is also beauty, sadness, sexuality, humor, and experimentalism, elements not necessarily associated with the fear format. We are treated to actual animal slaughter as part of Chad Eiven’s Vomire, while Stanze delivers a tone poem about loss entitled Faith in Nothing. Jason Christ gives us a nominal music video (Curveball’s “Pile of Junk”) and a satiric slasher joke (Victim). Toss in Tom Tevlin’s Unwatched, the surreal story of an odd old man named Sedgewick, the kid vid gone grotesque Liontown and Tom Biondi’s proto-porn revenge tale Satisfaction, and you’ve got an intriguing if inconsistent collection. 


Overall, The Severed Head Network is engaging, if not completely successful. For every work of inspired artistry, we get slaughterhouse suffering and naked numbness. It’s hard to argue for Tom Biondo’s installment, which seems more like an experiment in inverse erotica than an ersatz thriller. The high minded posh poetic narrative doesn’t help matters much. Similarly, Stanze’s surreal fan dance strains at anything other than a way of explaining framing and composition. The real finds revolve around a fractured senior citizen, a slice and dice gone goofy, and a commercial for a real wildlife con job. Had this collection been more about the story and less about style, we’d have a real treat here. Instead, this well meaning Wicked Pixel release is only marginally masterful. It will definitely satisfy its target audience, but anyone who doesn’t appreciate outsider ambitions will be left feeling depressed and disgusted.


Savage Harvest 2: October Blood [rating: 7]
After a fatal on-set accident, director Tyge Murdock returns to his hometown until things cool down. There, he reconnects with best friend Deke and ex-girlfriend Ashley. Both have issues leading back to a massacre a decade before. Deke is also babysitting alienated loner Zack, who lost most of his family in the carnage. Desperate to discover the truth, our isolated man is slowly coming undone. Similarly, Ashley’s sister Mikki killed herself after what she saw that night, and her grieving sibling is also seeking closure. After retracing the events of that fateful night, a return trip to the property is warranted. Of course, the foursome finds themselves facing the same Native American demonic forces which caused the chaos before. Even worse, the Kerrigan family is now involved, and with so much potential possession fodder around, it appears the forces of evil will have a field day destroying their human hosts.


Like slamming two separate and somewhat independent ideas together into one two hour test of your terror tendencies, Jason Christ’s earnest Savage Harvest sequel feels bifurcated and slightly askew. Leaving the Evil Dead dimension of the excellent original (as created by writer/director Eric Stanze) for a more subtle, eerie J-Horror fear feel, this production protégé wants to make sure his aesthetic is represented on every fascinating, flawed frame. The first hour of the film is an intriguing four character drama, an attempt to use the bedlam of the initial storyline to argue about how death and destruction affects those left behind. The second half finds Ashley with an axe in one hand and a chainsaw in the other, slicing and dicing her way through torsos, cleavage, arms, legs, crotches, and heads. Such splatter spectacle will definitely delight gorehounds. You will love aspects of this movie. You will sigh over other segments. Such inconsistency makes this sequel good, but definitely not great.


Deadwood Park [rating: 9]
When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in, it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer. His body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into his aging family home and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability solve the crimes, warns Jake against interfering. But the lawman’s curious daughter Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema. Stressing his amazing imagery, this director truly delivers. This haunting, harrowing effort is truly remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade. This is outsider cinema at its best.


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Monday, Oct 22, 2007


Movies made outside the mainstream still suffer from the same cinematic stumbling blocks that regularly bring down their Tinsel Town counterparts. Independence doesn’t always mean imaginative, and working within a set of basic budgetary restrictions doesn’t guarantee innovation or novelty. No, a homemade auteur, drunk on his own perceived importance, will rage against uninspired Hollywood ‘lacklusters’ while themselves falling into the same hack habits. They’ll repeat subjects, celebrate clichés, and add their own level of abject amateurity to the mix. The results are routine, dull, and lamentably lo-fi. Eric Stanze, however, is different. Over the course of a decade, he has lifted his personal production company, Wicked Pixel, from unknown quantity to top of the line indie equal. With such tantalizing titles as Ice from the Sun, China White Serpentine, and Savage Harvest, he has systematically shown that greatness can come from even the most fiscally restrained production process. His latest, the exceptional ghost story Deadwood Park, is no different.


When Jake returns to the small town he grew up in – and the family home he long abandoned – it drags up painful memories from the past. While still in grade school, his twin brother was abducted by a notorious child killer, and like many others in the community, the boy’s body was never found. Hoping to get some answers, he moves into the aging house and begins to ask questions about the case, the suspect, and the dilapidated amusement park where several of the victims were eventually found. The sheriff, still sulking over his inability to successfully solve the crimes, warns Jake against such actions. But the lawman’s curious daughter, a well-informed store clerk named Olivia, wants to help find the truth. She teams up with Jake, and together they piece together a surreal story involving a local priest, a buried trunk, and a similar series of murders back during World War II. And while all clues point toward Deadwood Park, some of the answers may actually be much closer to home.


For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Deadwood Park (new to DVD from Cinema Epoch) is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, Stanze goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. Previous efforts have actually relied on the optical to overcome some sloppy scriptwriting and narrative designs. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking. There are moments so vivid in Deadwood Park that they stand separate from the story they are illustrating. When Jake visits a desolate drive-in, design straight out of the ‘I Like Ike’ era, the sense of Americana lost is legitimate. The decaying domicile used as our hero’s home also oozes misty memories and the inherent horror of a youth violated.


But the most astounding found location remains the title vista, a collection of creaky wooden coaster tracks (almost all of it rotten and in horrid disrepair), empty pavilions, rusted out attractions and precarious train trestles. Even better, very little spook showboating occurs here. Instead of laying on the supernatural, Stanze creates mood, tone, and expositional importance – all keys to successful dread. Not since Herk Harvey stumbled across the desolate Saltair Amusement Park outside Salt Lake City and utilized it as the backdrop for his classic Carnival of Souls has a former fun palace been used so efficiently. It illustrates Stanze’s commitment as an artist, as well as his eye for scope and his desire to go beyond the fright film basics.


He also does wonders with his semi-professional cast. While he usually works with a company of long time associates – Emily Haack, DJ Vivona, Jason Christ – the director employs some fresh new faces, and the infusion of talent really affects his narrative. It’s clear that Stanze trusts these actors - he gives them reams of important dialogue to sell, most of it mandatory to set up the horror properly. If we don’t believe the legends, comprehend the connection between Jake and his family, or recognize the out of control nature of the entire town, Deadwood Park won’t work. It’s just pretty pictures surrounded by amateur theatrics. But the one thing Stanze strives for in every film he makes is a high level of quality – in cinematography, in editing, in writing and in performing. In the commentary accompanying this DVD release, the director outlines what he expects from a project, and with minor qualms here and there, this movie more than fulfills them.


And it shows. Deadwood Park is remarkable, a film one gets lost in. It’s not just the mystery that’s spellbinding (which resolves itself more than satisfactorily) or the problems hounding our hero. Stanze’s innate skill as a moviemaker drives us constantly forward, facing each moment of dark foreboding and chilling fear with solid sparks of suspense. One of the main problems novice moviemakers face is delivering believable horror set-ups. Without copying directly from the masters of the genre, untried writers and wannabe directors simply dredge up the precedent and hope that it plays. Stanze can stray into that territory now and then (his Savage Harvest was nothing more than Evil Dead with Native Americans) but for Deadwood Park, he plays everything very close to the vest. The references are not as obvious, the homages kept personal and perfectly realized. In interviews, the director has said that this was a paean to ‘70s terror. Clearly, he was referring to pacing and pitch, not the sordid drive-in exploitation that substituted for scares in the Me Decade.


Not only that, but Deadwood Park returns to the days when ideas made audiences anxious, not free flowing grue and video violence. Beyond all the evocative backdrops and interpersonal turmoil, this is a filmmaker who can really tell a story. Even as he avoids the norm and spends inordinate amounts of time establishing setting and physical locale, we are inexplicably drawn to the narrative elements. We want to see Jake succeed, Olivia help him, and the entire town vindicated after decades of trials and terror. It’s indeed rare when a homemade movie, crafted with care but still carved out of one person’s financially restricted vision, can be as compelling as this one. It means that the voice behind the scenes is powerful, original, and continuously challenging itself. Eric Stanze is such an outsider auteur, and his latest opus cements such a status.


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Monday, Oct 22, 2007


When it comes to mixing genres, it’s usually recommended to be obvious. An action comedy or a horror romance typically works best when audiences can sense the split between the two. Viewers like their cinematic categories decipherable, if only because it allows them to draw on an internal list of expectations and prepared responses. Dread should be scary, witticisms humorous, etc. But mix the combination too subtlety, shade a drama with just the slightest hint of science fiction or fantasy, and you threaten to leave the observer dumbfounded. David Lynch does this all the time, simply because he will use any and all filmmaking standards and subcategories to fulfill his artistic means. This leaves a tantalizing title like Dog Bite Dog in a similar cinematic quandary. What we supposedly have here is a typical cops vs. criminal adrenaline rush. But thanks to some unusual thematic and stylistic choices, the movie mutates between firefights and frights, standard stunt set-pieces and moments of moody macabre.


When the wife of a prominent judge is murdered in cold blood, Hong Kong police are baffled. Obviously a professional hit, they hope to locate the killer before he finds a way to escape their grasp. On a hunch, disgraced policeman Wai follows a suspicious man. Their eventual confrontation leaves no question of the stranger’s culpability. Looking for a place to lie low, murderer Pang procures the help of a young girl living in a landfill. She’s more than happy to help, the daily abuse by her incestuous father having successfully destroyed her spirit. As Internal Affairs investigates Wai (as a way of getting to his comatose cop father) and the crew assigned to the crime grows agitated, Pang plans his escape. He will take the girl, hijack a boat, and return to his Cambodian home. Of course, his pursuer has other plans, and it’s not long before the two are battling among the side streets and warehouses of the business/harbor district. It’s a war that will continue across borders and into countries where such inhuman confrontations are a matter of course. 


Dog Bite Dog (new to DVD as part of the Dragon Dynasty series from Genius Products) is the horror movie of Hong Kong action films. It’s Halloween with an abused Cambodian orphan as Michael Myers and a tripwire maverick cop as his equally volatile Dr. Loomis. They battle along a landscape inspired by the green/gray dreck drone of Saw and the gritty, grim atmosphere of Se7en. There are shades of Frankenstein (murdering monster befriending harmed human outcast) and any number of metropolitan zombie epics (a big city has never looked so desolate or disturbing). As helmed by Pou-Soi Cheang with a real flare for the dramatic and the distressing, this is an incredibly brutal and aggressive experience, a descent into the kind of mindless terror and blood-spattered nihilism that makes the MPAA weep. Yet thanks to the typical Asian story conventions – elder/young gun conflict, parental shame and family face, lawless law enforcement – and the remarkable performances by a completely devoted cast, we end up with something that utilizes the formulas to create a wholly original, and quite upsetting, experience.


We know we’re in for something different from the opening shots. While the title sequence suggests Nine Inch Nails gone even more industrial, the first glimpses of assassin Pang come as a big surprise. Hiding in the hold of a massive cargo ship, he is fed like an animal, a broken bowl of rice cherished like a convicted felon’s final meal. Before we know it, our antihero is pumping five bullets – several at point blank range – right into the head of an elegant older lady. While it’s vile and viscous, the crime is not really the issue here. Director Cheang is actually more interested in how animalistic individuals interact (thus the title). Of course, it takes a while before policeman Wai lowers himself to Pang’s level, but we get hints along the way. Though its somewhat skimmed over, we see the officer dealing in dope, beating suspects, torturing informants and generally acting like an unhinged madman. We expect fireworks when these two interact. What we get, instead, are confrontations so cruel they literally make one wince.


These aren’t gory, gratuitous exchanges. Instead, Cheang stages them to maximize the mindless hostility involved. Pang has been raised to be this violent. Wai has worked all his dangling Daddy issues into a tight little nuclear ball, and he can’t help but explode. Backstory is limited, so Dog Bite Dog is never really interested in getting into the psychological or symbolic manner of our good guy/bad guy’s past. Instead, these powder keg personalities simply go off (and often), leaving dozens of corpses and confounded witnesses in their wake. Even more impressive, Cheang is not afraid to kill off his characters. Though Hong Kong action films have their standard disposable victim fodder (usually a fat, oafish officer or a buffoonish bureaucrat), this movie more or less leaves everyone up for the Grim Reaper’s grasp. It truly heightens the suspense when, as Roger Ebert and Gene Sickel loved to argue, anyone can die at anytime – and typically does.


Even better, the whole landfill subplot gives the movie a uniquely maudlin edge. In the commentary track that accompanies this new DVD release, actor Edison Chen (who plays Pang) discusses the whole garbage village culture, from the massive mound itself – several football fields in size – to the unconscionable way people use the rotting refuse. Such authenticity really makes the relationship between Pang and the slightly slow girl he rescues into something bordering on old fashioned tragedy. It feels like John Woo worked through a 1930s Hollywood tearjerker. On the polar opposite of visual intrigue is actor Sam “Wai” Lee’s transformation from cop to caged beast toward the end. On the second disc of extras provided with the title (including interviews with Chen, director Cheang, and a thorough Making-Of), the star discusses his approach to character, and points out that Wai and Pang are really two sides of the same corrupt coin. Law is of no import to their purpose – unless it’s the natural order of kill or be killed.


Fans used to high flying martial artistry, slo-mo bullet ballets, and overly stylized sequences of outrageous and dangerous stuntwork will probably see Dog Bite Dog as something of a letdown. It’s more mano-y-mano than badass swagger and cool jazz heroism. It’s a dark, dense tale of terror told with sharp implements and callousness vs. the supernatural and the creepy. With an ending as bleak as they come, and a sense that everything we’ve seen has perhaps been all for naught (though the alternate narrative track suggests final shots that would have stated otherwise), it’s a tough, uncompromising entertainment. While most Hong Kong action aficionados think they’ve seen it all, Dog Bite Dog suggests otherwise. It stands as an understated film fusion that succeeds in staying true to all the references it relies on.


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Sunday, Oct 21, 2007


So, you want to be a filmmaker - and not just any kind of cinematic savant, but a semi-genuine, wholly independent, self-styled artist who reinvents the various genres they attempt while maintaining one realistic eye on the ever-changing moods of the mainstream. You long to see your name in lights, or if not that, as the headline on some web critic’s blog, and you bask in the imaginary glow of your own creative epiphanies, struggling for a way to share them with the rest of the world. Well, thanks to DVD, and the accompanying wave of handy homemade moviemaking sciences, your long dormant living dead extravaganza is just a few simple steps away. And SE&L is here to help. Call it an instructional guide or a series of procedural stereotypes, but almost all the no name homemade horror movies follow a concrete collection of logistical laws.


Certainly, some of you aren’t interested in tripping the terror fright-tastic. You’d rather work out the longstanding issues between yourself and your parents, your sexuality and its uncharted truth, or the world and your passionate personal political agenda. Now, there is nothing wrong with said subjects, and well received examples of same pepper the emerging underground scene. But if you want some cash to go along with your chaos, fear is a solid first rung on the inevitable ladder of legitimacy. It’s easily marketable, instantly recognizable, and occasionally profitable – or so the interviews with established genre veterans frequently state. However, you’ve got to get past a few hurdles before becoming the next Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. Let SE&L provide the blueprint for your approaching success with these 10 simple steps. When applied, they provide the shortcuts that others had to struggle to discover. While not foolproof, it’d be foolhardy to ignore them, beginning with:


Step 1 – Ignore the Conventional Wisdom RE: Technology
It used to be that, if you wanted to make movies, you had to know film. Not just know film, but study celluloid in a way that suggested a scientific handle on the subject. You had to make every reel count, taking exposure, lighting and shutter speeds. And talk about expensive. You had to pimp yourself to every dentist, local real estate magnet, and businessman with a hankering to play producer just to get a minimal amount of scratch. Well, Grandpa, digital is your deliverance. On the cheap – or cheapish – you can get a good camcorder, a collection of tapes, and – Viola! – you’re a director. Of course, mise-en-scene and other aesthetic artform considerations are optional. You’re a rebel. Screw the language of film, right?



Step 2 – Reminder: Stay Firmly Within the Homemade Horror Movie Subject Areas
Of course, creativity will not be your strong suit, initially. You just figured out how to download and access editing software on your laptop. No one expects you to be George Romero after that. Still, there are limits to your potential premises, dogmatic dictations about subjects you can and cannot tackle. Here are the three acceptable areas of horror that you are allowed to explore – zombies, vampires, serial killers. Prohibitions exist on anything involving science fiction, ghosts and/or haunted houses, and first person POV Blair Witch rip-offs. No one, not even the experts in said genres, can avoid those potential motion picture pitfalls consistently. They’re deadlier than a store bought monster mask and an aging porn star cameo combined.


Step 3 – Hire only Friends, Associates, and Random Well Wishers
They say a film crew is like a family – one big, dysfunctional and incestual hillbilly clan. So remember to keep your employees intimate. Avoid the local colleges and high schools and hire only actors who will tolerate your first time filmmaker hissy fits. There’s only room for one overly dramatic diva on set, and it’s YOU, baby. Besides, theater majors make lousy scream queens. As for costumers, cinematographers, and special effects technicians, look for members of your immediate sphere of influence and target individuals with a penchant for thrift stores, a relatively steady hand, and a collection of self-made taxidermy specimens, respectively. They will elevate your production value ten-fold.


Step 4 - Don’t Skimp on the Storyline
Remember, you may never get another chance at making a movie. No matter technology’s ease of access or the fervent desire of those around you, creating cinema can literally kill your inspired drive. It’s that whole “dreaming vs. doing” ideal. Anyway, since this may be your single shot, use it as a means to work out each and every one of your narrative agendas. Always wanted to feature a mass murderer who plays in his own feces while watching female victims go lesbian for his enjoyment? Make that a major subplot. Do you think Eddie Deezan like know-it-all nerds with creepy, whiny voices have been marginalized in the last few years? He’s your hero! Remember, there are no bad ideas, just badly written ones.



Step 5 – When in Doubt, Throw Blood on It
Of course, you may be one of the unlucky multitude that actually stumbles upon one of those rare lame storylines. It happens. If you discover that your re-vampire saga about extraterrestrial neckbiters who want to impregnate the females of Earth as part of some master race plan just doesn’t have the heft you imagined, gore it up. Bring on the body parts and offer up the offal. Even the most discerning fright fan will cut you some slack if you, in turn, cut up some corpses. Of course, don’t go overboard. Ample arterial spray is one thing. Autopsy like vivisection is reserved for sluice experts like Tom Savini only.


Step 6 – Nudity is Nice as Well – With One Caveat
If you can’t say it with blood, naked bodies will work just as well. As a novice filmmaker, you may not know this, but horror is the heavy metal of cinema. It plays directly into an adolescent’s angst, sense of social worth, and desire to see things die. So pander to this populace a little and toss in some tush. Just remember this one important fact – most of the girls who’ll agree to get wild have their own body issues they’re dealing with, and aside from random cutters, most have chosen tattoos as a way of expressing this pain. Exposed breasts are always a fright film plus. Said mammaries with large Middle Earth maps across them tend to be antithetical to arousal


Step 7 - Reminder: It’s not Stealing, it’s a Homage
Don’t be afraid to copy. This isn’t high school math, or the Bar Exam. Peeking at previous auteurs’ efforts is perfectly acceptable in the world of outsider cinema. After all, you’re supposed to benefit from the trailblazing of those who came before, but it’s not an inferred process. There is no celluloid osmosis. So you have to watch the work of others, and if something they’ve done inspires you, go ahead and borrow. If it works, you’re a studied apprentice of past masters. If it doesn’t you’re merely offering a tribute to those who came before. In the realm of horror especially, plagiarism is permitted. In fact, it’s how many macabre maestros earned their wicked wings.


Step 8 – Out of Fashion Musical Trends are Your Film Score Friends
Unless you’re going wholly retro and returning to the days of silent scares, you will need underscoring to set the mood and tone of your narrative. Some experts have even stated that motion picture dread is 10% story, 40% image, and 50% sound. In that regard, you won’t be able to afford some slick orchestral composer ready to channel Bernard Hermann and Danny Elfman. Nor are you John Carpenter or Robert Rodriguez, capable of making your own scary movie noise. While licensing fees can eat into your limited fiscal means, remember this – forgotten tune trends can bail you out every time. Scare standards include ska, death metal, techno, and navel-gazing alt-folk acoustic fare.



Step 9 – Post Production is Cinematic Salve
There’s an old saying on Hollywood film sets – “We’ll fix it in post”. Nowhere is this maxim truer than in the realm of outsider filmmaking. Something that looked remarkable the day you created it can feel sophomoric or ever silly when buttressed up against a supporting set of shots. Even worse, an actor or actress you admired tremendously when they emoted in person may resemble a lumbering lox once the viewfinder focuses on them. Thanks to all the advances in after production retrofitting, you can CGI out a bad performance, or rerecord a lisping thespian’s dialogue. Even better, colors can be moderated and details clearly defined with a series of keystrokes. In fact, the only trouble untweakable is your own lack of talent.


Step 10 – Distribution is only a DVD Drive Away
So, you’ve spent six consecutive weekends at your grandfather’s ranch filming in his abandoned chicken coop. You’re friends are tired, your significant other hates you, and you’ve got fake blood, Vaseline, and way too many Hot Pocket drips staining your wardrobe. You’ve sacrificed time, learned (and then relearned) cutting style and narrative clarity, and that local punk funk fusion band you commissioned is three weeks late delivering its “Devil’s Suite” for your climatic chainsaw orgy. Now imagine what such a circumstance was like when you had to rely on a theatrical release of a VHS company to carry your vision. Now, all you need is a computer, a pile of discs and the desire to burn baby burn. It may not certify your international acclaim and untold wealth, but at least you’re guaranteed some level of audience.


And there you have it – 10 simple lessons, 10 foundational rules of thumb that will start you off on the right film footing. Violate/ignore/reinterpret them at your own, and your directorial future’s, risk. Pay no attention to those who’ve completely avoided any or all of these guidelines and still managed to make stellar homemade cinema. There’s freaks after all, the exception that never bears out the actual rule. There are only so many Eric Stanzes and Scott Phillips in the world of outsider auteurs, and even they fall into parts of this determinative Decalogue now and again. While some would like to think this is a New Wave for motion pictures, a kind of digital self determination, viewers and commercial success continue to impose their own archetypes and clichés on the burgeoning format. Before the pool of popularity dries up, you better jump in and start swimming. The water may be murky, but the currents are completely in your favor – for now.


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Saturday, Oct 20, 2007


It’s been said that horror is cyclical, a looping genre tied to the current times and/or reigning cultural atmosphere. When politics are liberalized, more subtle scares are apparently in order. That may explain the sudden rise in Japanese ghost stories and bloodless supernatural sagas during the ‘90s. But put a Hawkish conservative in the White House, a man using his own source of scare tactics and military might to make his points, and the slice and dice gorezoning begins. When Reagan ruled the Oval Office, the slasher film saw mass murder made mainstream. George W. Bush and his War on Terror has itself resulted in torture porn and violence soaked exploitation. F/X master turned director Robert Kurtzman wants to use both formats to forge a post-millennial example of splatter slice and dice. It’s too bad then that Buried Alive isn’t more menacing. It’s got the fright formulas down pat. But unlike other retro fear factors, it can’t quite deliver all the gruesome goods.


Our story begins in typical Greed Decade fashion. A collection of college kids, including the nerd, the stud, the sorority chicks, and the daredevil dude with a few sordid secrets, all get into a Cadillac convertible and head out to the family mansion in the middle of the California desert. Seems great-granddad struck gold decades before, squirreled his strike away and – rumor has it – buried his first wife (a Native American) alive. A second marriage, a deadly fire, and a sole survivor have left the family cautious and cursed since then. Cousins Rene and Zane sense something is amiss in their genealogy, but can’t quite get a handle on the haunting. Even certified dweeb Phil and his Web savvy searching turns up little about the clan’s murder/massacre heritage. Of course, crude handyman Lester has his own theories about the legends. He believes the gold is still under the house, waiting to be discovered, and he’ll be damned if any rightful owner claims it first. Yet once everyone settles in for a night of beer, boot knocking, and various other nocturnal bumps, it is clear someone – or something - wants everyone dead.


Before cutting this inoffensive little scarefest down to size, it’s only fair to give Buried Alive some complimentary critical due. Kurtzman, who cut his teeth delivering life-like optical dread to such films as The Green Mile, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Identity does have some minor directorial chops. Previous efforts like The Wishmaster and The Demolitionist suggest a way with action, thrills, and slaughter-based chills. So handling an old school slasher flick should be no problem – especially one as simplistic as this. Indeed, we have a lone specter, a few creative axe murders, and limited red herrings to confuse the creepiness. An additional bonus is the presence of the Saw man himself, Tobin Bell. Relegated to playing the seedy supporting role of Lester, this neo-terror icon does a delightful job of making his caretaker character a suspicious, tripwire threat. We’re never quite sure what to think when Lester is around, and Bell’s shaded performance definitely adds to the mystery. The rest of the cast is competent, if rather cardboard, with some obviously hired for their titillating topless talents.


And the story’s not too shabby either. The script, by Art Monterastelli, best known for such episodic TV as Nowhere Man, High Incident, and Total Recall 2070, stays true to the tenets of the iconic ‘80s format, giving us good set-up, successful cat and mouse, and a collection of clever kills. There’s even some tasty totem mumbo jumbo to keep everything nice and ethereal. In fact, had the film stuck with the mythological aspects of the narrative and avoided all the sexed up skirt chasing, along with all the silly sorority initiation hi-jinx, we’d have a much better movie. Kurtzman canters past these pitfalls with ease, working around then by using location, production design, and blood spatter to save the day.


Almost. Indeed, Buried Alive starts to run out of steam about 45 minutes into its running time. At that moment, we realize we’ve only had one death (a fresh and funky bisection), way too much implied incest (Rene and Zane are more wannabe copulating than kissing cousins) and an overdose of paranormal inference and hinting. Unlike the camp based creepshows that used the fireside ghost story as a means of getting the premise presented, Buried Alive has to wait for scene after endless scene of goofball grab ass before slowly explaining the secrets – and then, it’s left to the finale to finally wrap everything up. To their credit, Kurtzman and Monterastelli don’t shy away from giving us a rather malevolent conclusion. Unlike the standard ‘last girl’ motif, we get unexpected consequences and acts of outright cowardice. Even better, our rotting corpse monster achieves some sort of metaphysical comeuppance (though it could just be a backwards way of setting up a sequel).


And yet, something is not quite right with this movie. It builds to an intriguing apex, and then decides to coast on its own cleverness until the viewer catches it napping. Then it tries to save face by going gonzo - only by then, we’ve stopped feeling connected to the characters. Indeed, there are scenes (Zane “singing” his family’s harrowing history, a blond bimbette playing Bambi as she whines over a sprained ankle) which throw us off completely. We have no reason to hate these individuals – they’re merely aggravating in an obvious, arrested adolescent manner – and recognize their status as victim fodder early on. But Buried Alive seems stuck on cruise control once the party shifts to the desert. All the face hacking, throat cutting, back slashing arterial spray can’t give the atmosphere back its genre sea legs. We just keep watching things drift until the necessary denouement. Then the ending gives it one more horror happenstance try before the credits finally roll.


It’s hard to completely blame what’s on the screen. After all, the slasher film in general is deader than Rob Zombie’s fanboy affections. Successfully bringing the by-the-numbers murder movie back seems like an example of a fool’s paradise mixed with a psychopath’s less lucid brainstorm. Even the recent theatrical revamp attempt, the excellent Hatchet, needed excess amounts of self-referential humor and cartoonish claret to make its Freddy/Jason/Michael macabre work. Here, all Kurtzman and his followers have is a modicum of mood, a smattering of style, and a heaping helping of axe fu. If you’re nostalgic for those long ago Saturday nights when dates where dicey and an evening with a stack of generic VHS video nasties was more your social life speed, Buried Alive will really work on your wistfulness. Otherwise, fright fans should heed the typical artform warning. A revival is only as good as its original source material. And since slasher films aren’t Shakespeare, updating them can lead to a box office of discontent. This amiable attempt is not necessarily doomed, just derivative.


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